When you’re having trouble finishing tasks or meeting deadlines, it’s not your to-do list you need to check, it’s your bipolar stability.
Sometimes I find writing difficult in the most basic sense: the act of stringing words together to form a sentence can become impossible for me. My mind is so scattered that by the time I get half a thought down, my brain has moved on to something else. Ten minutes later, I realize I’ve lost time by just staring at the wall, completely lost in thought.
This is the current I swim against during unstable times. I amaze myself each time I to put together 800–1000 words, something I rarely do in one sitting. Bipolar can interfere with my productivity. It slows me down and trips me up, and sometimes that leads to a secondary disorder I call “Acute Unfinished Projects Syndrome.” Maybe you have it too, and if so, I’ll bet it really annoys your family or roommates.
For most of my life, I imagined this syndrome was mainly a creative predicament. It’s fairly common to get ideas about a new project when you’re in the middle of something else. As far as I’m concerned, finishing a piece and not knowing what you’re going to work on next is the worst, so I’ve embraced a certain amount of creative chaos. I figured it was one of the flakier features of my personality, and, when I was feeling bad, I thought it was a character flaw—that I was a lazy person with a follow-through deficit. Eventually, I realized that it was more than a creative predicament or a Lynda thing. It was connected to my mood disorder—the amount of unfinished work around me is a reliable indicator of my stability.
Bipolar disorder affects my brain and the way it thinks. Hypomania is having one idea and not being able to finish it before the next one appears. Imagine a crowd of panicked people rushing to leave a building as a fire alarm is blaring, everyone pushing to make it through the doors at once. Now you have a picture of what happens in my head, of how aggressively my thoughts compete with each other.
However, if that hypomania is dysphoric, a single thought becomes an unstoppable gladiator, and there is nothing sensible I can tell myself to fight it. I will sit down to write and begin my sentence, only to blink five minutes later—waking up from a trance I didn’t realize I’d been in. Progress gets held hostage to anger and frustration, or whatever unreasonable emotion that has activated the gladiator.
Then there is depression, which is basically not having the next thought. This is certainly not conducive to taking the next step, which is essentially how progress works. Milder depression puts its own twist on things by bringing out my perfectionist self. I start things on time but still end up finishing at the last minute because nothing seems good enough. Stability would say, “How much time am I willing to devote to this?” and put that time stamp on my project, but an unworthy, depressed state of mind always needs to add one more final touch.
Anxiety causes fearful thoughts to swoop over my work like vultures. Sometimes they pick it apart until I abandon it, and sometimes I succeed in grounding myself and moving forward.
Some of my unfinished craft projects are actually things I picked up to carry me through tough times. There was a phase when I did needlework. It was something I could focus on to distract me from unwelcome thoughts. It worked pretty well. I made a few nice things, then abandoned it for the best reason of all—I stopped having those thoughts.
Unfortunately, most of the time unfinished work means I need to take better care of my bipolar. Identifying the patterns in my thinking that underpin different symptoms has allowed me to cope more effectively. Knowing that depression is holding me back versus anxiety is crucial because they need to be addressed differently. I can use grounding exercises and breathing techniques to help me with the latter. However, I may have to partner with my psychiatrist to address a sustained period of depression.
I can’t say that I have found a magical spell for ending “Acute Unfinished Projects Syndrome.” The tools I use are the most basic time management ones I learned in school: break tasks into chunks, tackle one thing at a time, give yourself a soft deadline . . . but you already know this stuff. Here’s the thing: if I’m using these skills and they’re working for me, then I’m stable. When I can’t seem to finish things (or finish on time) because I’m an anxious, depressed, or hypomanic mess, I don’t need expert advice on how to get organized and get more out of my day. I need to address the fact that my brain is working overtime, reacting to stimuli that don’t deserve my attention.
The ability to prioritize tasks in order to be productive is a cognitive function that gets compromised by bipolar thinking. Unfinished projects are the physical evidence of this struggle. If work is piling up around you or a loved one with this illness, it isn’t time for a conversation about time management. It’s time for a conversation about bipolar.
Lynda has been living with Bipolar II for nearly two decades and is expecting to receive her award nomination at any moment. She is a language tutor, furniture rehab artist, and founder and owner of Pink Unicorn Revival, a home decor upcycling initiative. She holds a B.A. in English and a diploma in Professional Writing from Mount Royal and MacEwan universities respectively. She lives in Calgary, Alberta, with her partner, one spoiled cat, and one very spoiled dog. Catch her tweets @CocoRubes.
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